For Elliott Smith, in his own words

Times Staff Writer

There's nothing like showing up at your own funeral to make it a real occasion, and that's what Elliott Smith did, after a fashion, at the Henry Fonda Theatre on Monday.

The late singer-songwriter materialized on a large movie screen at the end of an emotion-drenched, three-hour-plus tribute concert, singing his songs and skulking around assorted cities in a surreal documentary called "Strange Parallel" that was made a few years ago.

The celluloid Smith -- sweet, sad, playful, fragile, elusive -- was every bit as complex and compelling as the music preceding the movie insisted its creator would be -- something more than the stereotypic bummed-out bard whose death by his own hand last month at age 34 seemed preordained, or at least predictable.

His vivid presence was a cathartic conclusion that cut both ways, offering some solace while cruelly underscoring the irreversibility of his death. As Beth Orton sang in the last song, " ... Never can change that."

Smith wormed his way out of the Pacific Northwest indie-rock scene in the mid-'90s to become one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of his generation, but despite a major-label record contract and an Oscar nomination for "Miss Misery" from "Good Will Hunting," he remained a below-the-radar cult figure.

He'd been an L.A. resident for just a few years, but Monday's performers indicated that he'd done quite a job of touching them personally in that time. His songs may be troubled and melancholy, but he obviously was not a bad guy to hang out with.

The sold-out concert, whose proceeds benefit the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund, was presented in a spirit true to Smith's modest manner, with each of the 11 performers quietly taking the stage and singing a few songs, with the biggest star (Beck) getting no more time nor fanfare than scrappy local bands.

Of course, along with everything else, Smith was the ultimate bummed-out bard, and even under the best of circumstances a dose of Smith songs this massive could prove daunting. So the decision by Orton and some other performers to stray from the Elliott oeuvre helped keep the long evening from tipping too far into the dark.

Smith's folk-based style didn't allow for a lot of dynamic variety, so Future Pigeon's dub reggae version of "Waltz #2" was a welcome variation. L.A. veteran Tito Larriva was too broken up to even get through his two songs, and other singers frequently had to pause to collect themselves.

All this was done in the service of achingly beautiful, intricate and intimate pieces of music, sometimes lashing out of a deep pain in cruelly striking images, sometimes diagraming the dynamics of dysfunction with a rigorous eye and a poet's heart.

These songs might seem too intensely personal to be easily interpreted by others, but if Monday's concert established anything beyond Smith's artistry and personal impact on those who knew him, it's that singers looking for a challenge are likely to start turning to his songs the way their elders were drawn to those of Leonard Cohen. And if the results don't reach those standards, it won't be the fault of the songwriter.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction Tribute -- In some editions of today's Calendar section, a story on a concert tribute to the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith misspelled his name as Elliot Smith in the headline.
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